There are certain women that need to be kept underground.
Trinity College Library holds the only Irish copy of Eva Le Gallienne’s autobiography in its Early Printed Books section. That is, down to the bottom of the stairs in the Ussher Library and follow the labyrinth of dark, dank corridors that will lead you to ‘the lift’. ‘The lift’ is the only entrance and exit to Early Printed Books. (Don’t think about the fire safety issue.) It will not bring you anywhere else. For someone as claustrophobic as I, the corridors are bad but the lift is the worst part. Drawing a deep breath, I close my eyes when the doors close. But if Eva Le Gallienne has ended up in such a place, she must be worth getting to know. She must have been fascinating; possibly she was dangerous.
Do you remember that flippant comment Ria Mooney made about F.R. Higgins not being ‘exactly a film star lover’?
Eva Le Gallienne was the New York theatre director who offered Ria Mooney a role in 1927, and thus convinced her to move to New York. It was with the Civic Repertory Company (founded by le Gallienne) that Ria made the shift from actress to director and first began to impart her experience to young performers. On her return to Dublin, her reputation as one of Le Gallienne’s disciples played a major part in her career advancement. Theatre historians rarely mention Ria Mooney without adding Le Gallienne in the same breath. ‘Le Gallienne’ connotes exoticism, International dramatic technique, artistic vision and flamboyant style. The connection with Irish actresses of the 1930s is startling. I wanted to know more about their relationship: professional and personal. Again, I went in search of how these women connected, what drew them together and how they inspired each other.
I am working on a ‘Mind Map’ (or a spider diagram) for the site to help keep track of who everyone is, and how the connections have formed. I keep a massive one in my head, but even that is getting entangled and difficult to follow without backtracking regularly. So please bear with me!
Ria was playing in The Plough and the Stars in New York when she decided to audition for the Civic Repertory Company. Weary of Dublin, she was enticed by the idea that the Civic was a repertory company; its production modes were closest to The Abbey and so her experience was relevant. At least, that is how she sets out her decision in her autobiography. Ria’s memoir gives no hint that she knew of the rumours about the Company. Located in a crumbling old theatre on Fourteenth street, with a capacity of 1,100 seats, all of the professional staff of the Civic were female, and one critic called it ‘the Le Gallienne sorority’.
There is a strong argument that I shouldn’t be going here; maybe the lift should have scared me away. Ria Mooney’s sexuality, people may argue, was not related to her profession and is simply none of my business. But in trying to understand her motivations in going between New York and Dublin, and trying to hear the thoughts, pain and frustration swirling around in her head when she returned to Dublin, I had to go there. Eyes closed, holding on for dear life, the doors rattle shut and here we go!
Eva le Gallienne was born ‘a cockney baby’ and was brought up by her Danish mother in Paris after she left her father, a poet called Richard Gallon. There was no further contact with her father, but she was incredibly close to her half-sister, the daughter of a Liverpool Irish woman, who was called Hesper, or Hep for short. Eva remembers this first Irish confidante as ‘curiously magical’. Eva was dark, with a small, boyish figure and serious face. She began appearing on stage in London before World War 1, when she was in her early teens. When Ria met her, she had already caused a scandal by appearing on stage in New York wearing a scarf of purple silk around her waist, a clear symbol of lesbianism.
Ria played Rosie Redmond without knowing (allegedly) what a prostitute did. A slightly less naïve Irish colleen played Rosie Redmond in Dublin one more time, before heading back to the Fourteenth Street Theatre in the fall of 1928.
Her first home in New York was a room in a boarding house in Greenwich village. The first few months there were lonely and sad, as she had ‘fallen in love before leaving Ireland’. (Ria has never said with whom, but it’s possible already she was spending time with Higgins.) An artist friend came in the evenings; he read Turgenev aloud to soothe her broken heart and listened while she paced the floor night after night, sharing her ‘tragic tale’. After a few months, Ria took an apartment a block away from the theatre with another girl. Her heart was mending. Although she still hadn’t been cast in a Civic production, she was there regularly, watching Le Gallienne at work. When she had time off, she visited art galleries and read. Money was scarce. Le Gallienne is famous for saying:
Ria Mooney also knew such penury.
In her new home, Ria stained the floors black and made the cheap furniture bright with royal blue, red and yellow covers of sateen. Even with the elevated railway of Sixth Avenue roaring past and shaking the walls every few minutes, it was a cozy retreat where she could entertain new friends.
At 33 is the autobiography Le Gallienne produced detailing her peripatetic childhood and her incredible artistic achievements before she’d reached middle age. At one point, she describes rehearsals for a production of The Three Sisters, which she insisted on holding away from the theatre. The company took over a small inn in Westport, a small town in Essex County, New York, overlooking Lake Champlain. There, she brought the cast to sit around in beautiful fields and wood, doing nothing but trying to identify themselves with the various characters in the play. They called each other by their character names and frequently started work by discussing in character things not actually in the play. Once somebody gave a proper ‘cue’, the conversation would continue as written in the text. Such new and innovative techniques thrilled and inspired Ria Mooney, who in the Abbey received only her own lines on the ‘script’ she was provided with, and sat down to plates of paper ham and wooden chops.
At 33 is an elegant and flowing read, but at some point, I left the library disgruntled and frustrated. Ria Mooney gets one mention in this book. Only one! The presence of ‘Miss Mooney’ on stage is noted during an anecdote. There is nothing of how she mentored the young apprentices Le Gallienne took on, or how Le Gallienne gave her the responsibility of Assistant Director on the hugely successful production of Romeo and Juliet.
As I ranted, it was pointed out to me (by a proper theatre person) that Assistant Directors rarely get any credit for the extent of their work, even today. To keep this quiet is to protect their own ego and their artistic integrity. I finished off another coffee and went back to the library. This time, I kept in mind that autobiographies may be more revealing if one focuses on the details that have been omitted.
The Civic Repertory continued to produce hits, but Ria was rarely on the casting list. She had some small roles, but the leading roles were generally taken by Eva herself or offered to a red-haired beauty with huge, child-like eyes called Josephine Hutchinson (known in the company as Josie). Ria resorted again to observing from a distance, directing crowd scenes and helping out as needed.
Le Gallienne claimed that she was forced to shut down the Civic Repertory Company because of the financial crash of 1929 and her need for a ‘sabbatical’. But there were other factors at play, not mentioned in her memoir. In July 1930 Josephine Hutchinson was officially divorced from her husband, Robert Bell. The press insisted that this was the first recorded instance of a lesbian correspondent in a divorce, that Bell had named Eva le Gallienne as the adulterous party. Exhausted and broke, le Gallienne was admitted to hospital and later sought refuge in her home in the country. At some point, she was badly injured in an explosion and almost lost the use of her hands.
Again, Ria was out of work, broke and wondering where home was. She had seen the devastation such sexual scandals could bring. She had watched Eva struggle on as long as possible, drinking too much and work deteriorating; in fact, Ria had covered for her on occasion. So when the Abbey sent word that they needed an actress, she packed her bags and joined them on tour in Atlanta, Georgia. Little had changed for the Abbey Company: same personalities, same plays, same theatres. Comforting and painful. Ria Mooney later said that she came back from New York with nothing but an ‘inferiority complex’ about her weight and shape and talents. In leaving behind that bright, cozy Greenwich home, she was bringing much more back to Dublin: an insight into another world that would have shocked and appalled some of the Abbey women.
In my earlier entry, I wrote of Ria Mooney’s ‘hut’ in Wicklow, the retreat that she shared with Fred Higgins, and of the silver ring that he gave her. But I left something out. It wasn’t a deliberate intention to mislead; I needed more information.
The first party that Ria Mooney attended in New York was in the home of a ‘beautiful girl called Rita Romelli’. Here, Ria first encountered the ‘beauty and elegance of American women’. Smitten, she noted: ‘Every woman there seemed to be tall, slim and exquisitely gowned. Their make-up was not at all obvious, and it seemed to me that their complexions were flawless.’
Ms Romelli later became Mrs Eleanor Kick Erlanger. It is to this ‘beautiful girl’ that Ria Mooney’s autobiography is dedicated.
Now, what would Fred Higgins have thought of that?
There’s every chance that Ria Mooney would have been banished underground …